A move by the West Virginia Racing Commission Jan. 23 jeopardizes the future of the Charles Town Classic (G2) at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, the lone grade 2 race in the state.
Despite a purse agreement in place by the Penn National Gaming-owned track and horsemen, the WVRC refused to approve the stakes schedule requested by Charles Town that listed a $1.2 million purse for the 2018 Charles Town Classic.
Instead of approving the stakes schedule, commissioner Ken Lowe Jr. made a motion to approve a $300,000 purse for the race. Lowe's motion also included an option to allow as much as $600,000 to be committed to the race from the purse fund if the track matched that amount.
Track officials reiterated their positions that neither of those options work for the type of race they're trying to offer. With the seven-figure purse, which Charles Town noted is available based on the purse agreement with horsemen, Charles Town has been able to attract top horses from throughout the country and garner national attention and increased wagering interest for its race.
Despite the track's position and a letter from horsemen acknowledging the purse agreement, Lowe's motion was approved 3-0.
"There are more people here on (Charles Town Classic) weekend than any other, more eyes on our simulcast signal that day than any other. The hotel rooms are full. To kill that, it almost leaves you speechless to be honest," said Charles Town vice president of racing Erich Zimny. "Unless something changes, I don't expect the Charles Town Classic to be offered this year."
Lowe, former president of the Charles Town Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said the seven-figure purse is excessive and argued that adding a number of $100,000 stakes races that would see local participation is a better use of the track's purse fund.
"If you take $600,000 out of that $1.2 million, and put it back into the purse fund and have six $100,000 races, someone's going to sell hay, or a bale of straw. The whole idea here is to get the owners back into the game," Lowe said.
"I'm an owner who left. Why did I leave? Because of the instability of racing in West Virginia and Charles Town; it's guys like me—guys much wealthier than me—who make the game go round. If we don't buy those foals—preferably West Virginia foals—and pay the vet, and the blacksmith, and the jockeys, and the agents (it doesn't work)."
The track had proposed reducing the purse slightly, as the $1.2 million is down from $1.25 million the past two years. From 2013-2015 the race offered a $1.5 million purse. Since its launch in 2009, Zimny said it's been a great marketing tool. He said as fans and horseplayers attend the race day or wager on the simulcast, they return to support the track.
"It has a year-round effect. Our handle is up 65% since this race has started and those incremental gains have indeed gone back into the purse fund," Zimny said. "We've tried to do something that will make us more self-sufficient. By our estimates, we've added anywhere from $6 million to $7 million into the purse fund based on pari-mutuel activity alone. Currently that's about a third of the racing year, roughly—that's what we've saved."
In documenting its reduced reliance on added-gaming funds, Charles Town presented numbers that showed the track has improved from $4.20 in handle for each purse dollar in 2009 to $7.83 in 2017. Zimny credits that improvement to the addition of big races like the Charles Town Classic.
A letter from the current Charles Town HBPA confirmed the purse agreement in place. Speaking at the meeting, Charles Town HBPA president Randy Funkhouser said there was a lot of negotiation on the issue but horsemen ultimately agreed on the funding of the stakes schedule.
Charles Town racing secretary Charlie McIntosh noted the money is available to fund the Charles Town Classic. He said the race has been a driving force to push the track's business forward.
"We're within our regulatory guidelines," McIntosh said. "This is a business decision. We need to keep it at $1.2 million to maintain the momentum we have with the race."
Approval of the stakes schedule had been tabled in December. During that time WVRC executive director Joe Moore and his staff researched how other state regulators handle decisions on stakes schedules.
"None of the jurisdictions that were surveyed have ever denied a stakes request," Moore said.
Despite the agreement being in place and Moore's research showing the WVRC would be going against the grain, the commissioners did not approve the proposed stakes schedule.
During his time as Charles Town HBPA president, Lowe was ejected for two weeks from the track's property in 2011 after track officials determined he was passing out flyers announcing an HBPA meeting. Charles Town officials told BloodHorse then that house rules prohibit solicitation.
At Tuesday's meeting, Lowe suggested that Charles Town officials come back and talk with the commission about options for its stakes schedule.
"We are in a forced marriage," Lowe said. "We are in a shotgun wedding, in a sense."
Despite two months to consider the schedule, commissioner Anthony Figaretti, who was appointed in February of 2017, admitted ignorance on many of the issues involved. He said it would take too long to have all of his questions answered.
"I just don't want to reply on it right now. I think I have to give it a hell of a lot more thought," said Figaretti, who moments later voted in favor of Lowe's motion to oppose full funding of the Charles Town Classic.
As for the part of Lowe's idea that would see Charles Town pay out funds matching the commitment of the purse fund up to $600,000, Zimny said that approach would be contrary to how nearly any other big race is funded. He cited races like the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby (G1) and noted that its purse is negotiated between the track and horsemen. He said matching $500,000 in cash would be a large percentage of the track's racing revenue and the track would not be in position to do that.
Zimny said the Charles Town Classic has answered the call from the state tourism officials requesting a big racing day. He noted the race was on Fox Sports 2 last year. He said not supporting the race is putting a dagger into West Virginia racing.
Lowe encouraged a new approach.
"We need to pull in the same direction and make it work," Lowe said. "I think this is a chance for all of us who care about racing and care about West Virginia."
Zimny was completely at odds with that approach.
"To eliminate the brightest and best race that we have isn't helping," he said.